Monday, March 7, 2011

While visiting Kingston's up and coming tearoom, I found he had a tree-stump Yixing teapot that resembled mine. I couldn't pass up this learning experience so I brought my teapot over on my next visit and let Kingston compare the two (above picture: mine is on the right). Pots like this can be made from a mold but what sets one from the other is the artist's eye for sharpening and adding details to the final product.

Winnie also has a tree-stump teapot. We picked up ours together in Hong Kong. There are elements to both our teapots that we find in Kingston's version. I asked Kingston for his first impressions. He said mine was nicer because of the greater amount of detail and the way those details were executed. While the color of the clay was the same, Kingston noticed a subtle, textural difference. It's one I have had trouble trying to catch on camera. The contrast isn't great enough but Kingston felt the difference with his hands. My clay was superior so the teapot felt smoother and more consistent throughout.

Kingston's teapot is on the left and you can see the handle while resembling a a young branch is nice but it's not as interesting as the aged and cracked wood effect of my teapot's handle. This detail adds a greater value for collectors who like this style. So long as it's not overwrought, intricate flourishes are expected with this kind of organic look.

Winnie's teapot is on the foreground and you can see just how clean and sharp its edges are compared to the softer contours of the Kingston pot. No major differences between all three pots but the sum of those little things add up to significant dollars.

  None of the teapots shown have been used but one of the joys of owning this style of pot is brewing with it and allowing a natural patina to develop. Because of all the tree knots and floral details, the changes in color saturation will be more pronounced between the smooth and rough areas. The tea staining adds another layer to the intricate look.
This was my first time using the tree-stump pot. Because it's quite small and holds only 60cc, I chose a tightly rolled tikwanyin. I wanted to enhance the richness of the red clay so I used our "Classic Roast" Iron Bodhisattva. It's deep, burgundy hue is a natural complement to the clay.
It's finally time to "feed" the teapot.

One cup for me, and one for the teapot.

 The submerged bottom of the teapot showed me a preview of the rich color I can eventually attain the more I use it. All those carefully carved out nooks and crevices will darken and add dimension to the woody details. This is one teapot that does require a little extra attention for it's maintenance. I want to make sure the tea and water stains accentuate and highlight the organic shape of this tea and not leave marks on the smooth parts of the surface. Once I was done using the teapot, emptied the leaves and given it a quick rinse, I gently buffed the surface dry with a thick tea towel. Then I used a smaller, thinner cloth and rubbed away the stains that left outlines around the carved flowers and notches. You can also use a clean, medium-bristled paintbrush to get beneath the handle and other small niches.

While it takes time for the patina to develop, I feel an impatience to see those delicate flowers and carefully etched knots pop with contrast.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Golden Buddha Hand: Trial in the Tearoom

 2010 Fall Harvest vs. 2010 Spring Harvest 

We don't always have the leisure to spend and afternoon with tea in this society. Even working at a tearoom, means a lot of administrative work and taking care of your clients. It's a shame since some teas undergo many changes during multiple infusions and resting periods. At the tearoom, we often refer to the "life" of the tea, the journey it takes from the first delicate infusions to the eventual peak in flavor and body. Then there's the slow, softening of flavors as it completes it's arc and reaches the end.
The past few months, Toki and I have been drinking and evaluating the 2010 Fall harvest of an oolong, called Golden Buddha Hand. Soon to be an exclusive offering from The Mandarin's Tearoom. I also got to compare the tea to it's 2010 Spring harvest version. This was the tea producers initial offering and some changes were made to improve the later batch. As you can see in the picture above, the two harvests are very similar in appearance except the Spring harvest on the right, is slightly darker due to roast.

 Here were the starting parameters:
  • I measured 7 grams each of the dry leaf and used porcelain gaiwans at 90cc, pre-heated with boiling water. Examined the dry leaf aromas: due to the cool and dry conditions of the tearoom (winter in NYC, ugh), both teas had a subdued fragrance. 2010 Fall was surprisingly more potent than it's darker sibling from Spring. Sweeter with light citrus flowers that seemed less oppressed than the soft, nutty notes of the roasted version.
  • I used boiling water for the flash rinse, decanted and enjoyed the awakening fragrance of the wet leaves. Now I get fresh cream and bergamot oil from the greener 2010 Fall. Florals were evident in the roasted 2010 Spring, layered with toasted grain.
  • First steep lasted less then 10 seconds. Leaves of both teas were still tightly curled. Differing colors between the two teas really starts to set them apart. 2010 Spring has an orange hue and the stronger flavor. The pale yellow-green of 2010 Fall looks almost neon against the white porcelain with lots of creaminess and flowers. I'm reminded of a creamsicle. Both have strong citrus notes.
  • Second steep was only a few seconds longer. Slowly the flavor builds, and the finish begins to develop. More orange flowers. More of the roast in the 2010 Spring.
  • Third steep, there's more body and layers to both teas as expected. 
  • Bottom of the cup fragrance: After I emptied my cup, both teas left a persistent, sweet scent clinging to the porcelain. 
  • Fourth steep has the 2010 Fall leaves opening up and filling up it's gaiwan. 2010 Spring maintains it's shape. Both teas continue to develop more layers but I find myself drawn to the greener oolong. It's flowers and cream are so easy to enjoy, there's little effort for so much pleasure.  
  • Far from finished, I do the Stress Test: or "pushing" the tea. Skilled brewing and appropriate water temperature can bring out the best in most good quality teas. One can also learn things about their tea when brewing under hostile parameters with longer heat and infusing times. Usually this is reserved for oolongs and puers; the better quality ones can handle it quite well without developing astringent notes. (Phoenix oolongs don't seem to handle this test very well, regardless of grade.) Some high quality, aged teas "can't be pushed" meaning they give up their flavor and fragrance on their own time and no amount of coaxing or brewing skill will deliver those notes prematurely. For the fifth steep, I left the tea in for about a minute longer than necessary. The 2010 Spring roast yielded some tannins and tipped the balance of the flavor profile. 2010 Fall performed more admirably, unleashing more piquant citrus and buttery texture. 
  • I approached the sixth steep with less aggression. Another think to look at was if the tea would bounce back when reverting to normal brewing standards. Now that the tannins were revealed in the 2010 Spring, they were staying put. The 2010 Fall was more accommodating, maintaining consistent flavor throughout it's ordeal.

  • Resting period: This is something Tim does to see what changes will occur to the flavors when you walk away from your tea in the middle and let it cool a bit before resuming the tasting session. After a few steeps, leave the tea alone in the brewing vessel, without water but covered by the lid. 
  • I returned to brew the seventh steep after a hour long rest for the tea. I used boiling water again and steeped for 30 seconds. The biggest change was in the 2010 Fall version. It shifted the balance towards a sweet but grassier taste. Not bad at all, just different with more herbaceous notes. Depending on my mood, I could see myself craving both flavors. The 2010 Spring held on to it's roasted notes with a sweeter touch.

  • Golden Buddha Hand has some of the largest leaves of the Tikwanyin family. 2010 Spring leaves never fully unfurled due to it's roast, the leaves remained a little kinked. 2010 Fall's leaves opened up completely, flat and full with a soft, resilient texture.
Both versions Golden Buddha Hand were surprising in their brewing stamina. I've never been really interested in Buddha Hand before this. Many of the one's I'd tasted before were decent but far from inspiring. The Mandarin's find is special one; easy to like and capable of holdingmy interest. I got to examine two different harvests and processing styles. It showed me some of the flavor range the leaves are capable of. With a relaxing chaqi, I spent the rest of the day pleasantly warm and happy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Lunar New Year!

Rabbit painting by Tsui Po
Many thanks to our dear tea friends and patrons for your continued support and patronage.
Gong Hay Fat Choy from all us at the little tearoom on Howard Street. May the Year of the Rabbit bring you good health and fortune.

 It's been quite a year for the tearoom and I'm looking forward to what the rabbit will bring. Hopefully not more snow or sleet or the icicle that nearly took out my eye. This past month has introduced us to many new tea friends and we've discovered new developments in the New York tea community. I'm keeping a close eye on our friend Kingston's new Brooklyn venture. I got to handle some royal yixing at his place and Brandon was there to record it. He continues my last post on his blog WrongFu Cha. I can hardly wait for his official opening.

The past few months have been devoted to tasting and testing some exclusive teas from The Mandarin's tearoom. While this is the Tea Gallery blog, my dual job identity means some overlap and I'll be using this space to review teas from both companies. Check back soon to see what we've been drinking these past weeks.

Our Big February Event:

An Evening of Chinese Tea and Tradition:
The annual Coffee and Tea Festival comes to NYC this month and we're sponsoring a special VIP tasting and presentation at the show! For the first time ever, The Tea Gallery and The Mandarin's Tearoom will be showcasing Chinese tea and it's culture in an exclusive evening event on Saturday the 19th from 5:30 to 7:30pm. Much of what we'll be sharing is based on the lecture series we do for private audiences and educational programs. We'll take a brief look at the historic forces that shaped Chinese tea and influenced the rest of the world. We'll also explore ancient tea myths and learn how to develop a modern palate for tasting teas. The second part of the evening is a tasting reception where tea masters, Michael Wong and Timothy Hsu demonstrate traditional brewing styles and serve signature teas of the tearoom. 
Learn more at: VIP Tasting Event.
When: Festival starts February 19-20, 11am - 5pm
Where: 7 West 34th Street (between 6th and 5th Avenue), New York, NY 10001
Due to space constraints, seating is limited and participants are urged to buy tickets ahead of time to reserve their spots. Tickets to the VIP event can be purchased along with Saturday's admission or purchased separately: Get Tickets!

10% off any teas or accessories purchased during the events. We will also be raffling of free admission tickets ($20.00 value each) for the upcoming NYC Coffee and Tea Festival at our weekly Wednesday tasting events on Feb. 9th and 16th.

February 2010 - Wednesday night tea tasting schedule: $20.00 per person
  • February 9       Puer Tea              6:30 - 7:30pm
  • February 16     Oolong Tea          6:30 - 7:30pm
  • February 23     Japanese Tea      6:30 - 7:30pm

Monday, January 10, 2011

Brooklyn Royalty

 Last Sunday, Brandon from Wrongfu Cha was in town and the two of us paid a long overdue visit to our friend Kingston. For the past couple years he's been energetically building his teapot museum and tearoom in the wilds of Brooklyn. Since my last visit, he's been tirelessly growing his collection of yixing antiquities and remodeling his space. There's even an official name and banner that greets you at the front entrance: Orchid Tea House.  While his tearoom is still a work in progress, close friends and fellow antique collectors drop in to have tea and admire his latest acquisitions. 

We spent the entire day with Kingston, enjoying his hospitality and expressing unabashed envy at many of his pieces. The one that really took my breath away deserves a post all it's own:

Two Ching Dynasty teapots made with duan-ni (yellow) clay. These elegant shuiping were export Yixing pots for the royal Siam collection during the reign of King Rama V (his full name:Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramintharamaha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua).

Whats even more astonishing is that the pair was acquired separately by Kingston. Thanks to a combination of savvy, luck and friendly tea connections. While they look nearly identical, there are small differences due to the handmade quality. There is also a difference in hue. One has been used to make tea for some time and the other was left pristine. The tea stained pot had a deeper glow and the edges stood out where the tea collected and darkened. It also felt smoother than the untouched pot. The sandy texture of the duan-ni clay was softened by the tea oils and there was a comparable difference between the two.

The tall flange was eggshell thin and that both lids escaped chipping was a miracle.Both pots were lightweight and fit snugly in my hand.

The royal Thai stamp was on both teapots but most visible on the tea stained bottom. There was also a smaller stamp on the inside of the lid.

The craftmanship is exquisite, the sharply defined spout is balanced by a slender ear. There was barely any space between the rim and the teapot's opening. To own even one of these spare and sophisticated teapots is impressive but two is incredible.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Winter Green

At our Japanese tea tasting over the weekend, we introduced something most people haven't heard too much about: aged Japanese gyokuro. Yes, a green tea that has been "aged" and it's not even Chinese. It's also not a new practice, Japanese connoisseurs and tea merchants often save their gyokuro harvest for up to a year before they will drink it. While we always look forward to drinking fresh gyokuro in the spring, we've been buying extra and storing some on the advice of Japanese tea friends. When properly stored, many green teas can last up to a year without dropping in quality and freshness but gyokuro is purposefully stored to improve the quality and the tasting experience. The tea is supposed to mellow and become even sweeter. The flavors are better balanced and even the texture is supposed to improve. We have a couple questions that we hope to answer with our own experiments: How long can gyokuro be stored and when does it peak? At what point in time does aging no longer improve the tea? Will the gyokuro eventually go stale like other green teas? What's the longest gyokuro has been successfully aged?
Our gyokuro (pine grade) comes from Uji in the Kyoto prefecture. It was harvested in the Spring of 2009 so we've had it for about a year and half. The broken leaves are rolled into little, slender stalks. The color is a rich, glossy green with bluish highlights. The aroma is soft with a hint of cocoa.

The most frequently asked questions at the tasting event centered around water temperatures and brewing times. We've addressed this a couple times on this blog but I'm happy to reiterate some basic points.Especially since I've been hearing about a popular tea guide on the internet that advises brewing green tea at 170 - 180 Fahrenheit for up to a minute... do not do this.
water cooler
Any guide that just has a general brewing temp. for all green tea, regardless of type is useless. Longjin, bilochun, sencha, gyokuro (to name a few) all have different requirements to achieve their distinctive flavors. For example: Chinese LongJin can handle a flash rinse at 185 Fahrenheit but then the water temperature is lowered dramatically (by about 30 degrees) for the actual infusion. Gyokuro, even one that's been aged like ours, requires very low temperature brewing from the start and doesn't get a rinse. If you brew a Japanese green tea at 180F, you are cooking the leaves. You might as well invite friends over for soup instead of tea. Also, the "tea guide" I was shown didn't even go into leaf and water ratios. I'm guessing the writer uses very little tea in a large amount of water and then a long steep time to pull out as much flavor as possible. Generalities like this just leads to mediocre tea, avoid them and take the time to practice and experiment for yourself. It's not hard to memorize the different requirements of tea; the knowledge will come naturally with experience. Okay, rant over; back to the tea.
  • For the gyokuro, we brewed with water at 130-140 Fahrenheit.
  • I used my small gyokuro pot (made of tokoname clay) that holds 90ml and about a tablespoon of tea leaf. 
  • Traditionally, water used for brewing sencha or gyokuro is brought to a boil first even though we use a lower temp. The boiled water is used to heat up the brewing vessel and cups. I transferred the water from the teapot to a water cooler bowl and added the dry leaf. The heat from the teapot brought out the delicate, nutty aroma of the leaf. It's very important to preheat the teaware because they can pull a lot of heat away from the water for brewing, especially water that's already a low temperature. After a little wait, my water was sufficiently cool enough to use (transferring water from vessel to vessel cools it down considerably, it doesn't take long until your ready to brew).  
  •  Gyokuro leaves are delicate and should be handled gently. For the first brew, I used a fine but steady stream and started pouring from the edge of the pot. Slowly, I made my way around the rim of the teapot and until the pot was filled to the brim. This way the leaves are introduced to water indirectly and they swirl gently around the pot, opening up without getting bruised.
  • I waited 30 seconds before decanting the first infusion and poured it directly into the tea cups using a gentle stop and pour action. (This method is described in a previous post on brewing sencha)
  •  The second infusion takes 10 seconds longer and the water can be a few degrees hotter but not much more than that. I noticed the leaf didn't fully expand even after the second infusion.
  • The third cup is optional and usually the weakest infusion even while using hotter water. I added another 15 seconds to the brewing time. Much of the delicate flavors are released with the first two brews and and I tasted less umami. It was still enjoyable but I knew that was the end of the experience.
While the leaves become a bright, saturated green when they unfurl in the water, the tea itself is quite pale with a yellow-green hue. However, it holds a surprising amount of body with a soft, chocolaty finish. The first sip is a light touch and then the umami starts to blossom and triggers the regions of the mouth that produce saliva. The sweetness follows the savory elements. The idea is to sip and savor this tea slowly so that you can experience the subtle shifts in flavor. It's almost difficult to do because the tea is very smooth and travels easily down the throat. Minute leaf bits are suspended in the infusion like dust motes in air and add to the satiny texture. Not a trace of bitterness or astringent quality, it was also missing the grassy note of a fresh gyokuro. I ate some of the leaves themselves and they tasted pretty fresh.
Even though it's been below freezing in New York and Toki likes to keep the windows open, I haven't experienced the internal cooling sensation that usually accompanies green teas. So far, I haven't gotten the usual chills and I'm happy to discover a green tea I can drink in the dead of winter without any discomfort. I'm curious to do a side by side comparison tasting of this gyokuro and the next harvest in 2011.

Aged gyokuro... worth the wait so far.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dragon and Phoenix

I finally brought my dragon & phoenix gaiwan to the Tearoom for show & tell. This was the super ornate, hand painted one I found at a Hong Kong teashop; balked at the price; went home to New York without; then had reverse buyer's remorse and made Michael order it for me. It's been languishing in the back of my tea cabinet while we focused on setting up the new tearoom. I was happy to rediscover this lovely piece last week:

I love the lush details of the dragon with the gold outline of it's jaws, clean white fangs and every scale was added by hand. Even the background hasn't been spared as a closer look shows a tight random pattern surrounding the mythical beasts and flowers. It's richly colored and psychedelic yet also elegant.

When I received the gaiwan, Winnie also handed me this:
At first I thought it was very flimsy puer knife. Turns out, all the gold trim on the lid, cup and saucer was painted and left matte. The "knife" is used like a scraper to bring out the traditional shine of the gold. The blade is agate and polishes up the gold paint. I had not counted on that and Winnie just gave a shrug and said "That's how it's done, get scraping." Seriously, she seemed more surprised that I didn't know this fact about new gaiwans. I also realized just how much gold was incorporated into the artwork, like the thin line that traces the dragon's spine or the flecks in the Phoenix feathers. Michael was entertained by my frustration and said with an evil grin, "Imagine how much more this would have cost you if the artists had to do this part. It's going to take you hours but you'll save money." Several "Dexter" episodes later and aching fingers, I managed to give the gold details a soft, buttery glow.

I am a little scared of using this gaiwan. It's even thinner than the ones we sell at The Tea Gallery and there is only the slightest flare along the rim. There's more risk of chipping or just outright dropping it while I'm decanting tea. I do intend to use it but I'm also happy enough to just see it displayed.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Now on Flickr

Yumcha and Toki are teaming up and sharing our photos on
We just started the '21 Howard" page to document the daily life of our tearoom in pictures. Please visit and let us know what you think as we add a little bit each day to our photo diary!